The gloomy confessions of an aid adviser
Dipping my toe into artificial intelligence

Changing political culture is a complex task


ADELAIDE - The critical statement in Dr Bal Kama's excellent essay on the future of governance in Papua New Guinea is that “there must also be changes in political culture and behaviours of politicians and bureaucrats if any reform is to have meaningful impact”.

We have seen demonstrated in well-established democracies including the USA, UK and Australia that disrespect for cultural norms and political conventions translates rapidly into rancour, division, dysfunction and even malfeasance.

It turns out that democracies work as much by relying upon people acting in accordance with unwritten conventions (customs and traditions) as by formally defined constitutional 'rules of the game'.

If political parties or leaders decide to ignore or circumvent the unwritten rules, this can initiate a downward spiral into situations such have emerged in the USA, where the Republican Party has become captive to Trumpist ultranationalists, covert racists and religious extremists.

In Australia, the now infamous Robodebt scandal had its origins in a politically cynical, immoral and unethical decision to persecute a specific section of the population who, although largely helpless and blameless for their circumstances, were judged to be social parasites.

Worse still, despite knowing or suspecting that the methodology for calculating the supposed 'debts' of these people was illegal, the leadership of the federal bureaucracy went to considerable pains to ensure that either the government was not told this or that it was otherwise provided with political 'cover'.

In the UK, former prime minister Boris Johnson was deposed by his own Tory MPs when his persistent lies and misconduct become unendurable even to them.

I mention these matters to emphasise that PNG's political culture will not be reformed by only changing the country’s governance structure.

In fact, an unsuitable culture could be made much worse unless great care is taken in designing a different model.

Concentrating power in too few hands has, across the world, generally proven to be unwise or even catastrophic.

The evolution of this style of government has proven to be a bad fit in a country as diverse and as politically unaware as PNG.

A better fit for PNG would seem to be a model in which power is dispersed and emphasises the development of public policy through coalitions built from a disparate group of political leaders.

Probably more important is to then to constrain illegitimate behaviour by establishing a powerful anti-corruption body that is effectively immune from political influence.

Such immunity could be provided, for example, be establishing it as arm of the Governor-General's Office, making the head of state much more than a figurehead.

Provided the Governor-General was appointed or removed by, say, a two-thirds majority of the parliament, the incumbent would be able to exert a powerful influence upon political behaviour.

A possible downside would be the emergence of a power-hungry Governor-General, such as Australia’s John Kerr who sacked the Whitlam government in 1975, but that would be an unlikely scenario if, for example, the Governor-General could only serve a single five-year term and be bound by other protocols of office.

The main requirement is that policy makers think ‘outside the square’ when considering constitutional reform.

PNG needs a system that can accommodate the best aspects of The Melanesian Way, best articulated by its chief proponent, the late Bernard Narokobi, notably the power of consensus, and eradicate its worst features, including the perversion of the wantok system that induces corruption as a means of securing and maintaining political power.


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Bernard Corden

The traditional 'culture follows structure' axiom, supplemented by a leadership hero myth, has proven somewhat unsuccessful in most Western democracies, thus reinforcing Lord Acton's dictum that "absolute power corrupts absolutely."

The manner in which followers and leaders relate depends on the context within which they are embedded and we appear rather reluctant to unshackle ourselves from conventional and seductive accounts of leadership.

Indeed, Dominic Dead Parrot wouldn't go wumph if you put 5000V through him and it was most satisfying to see the NSW electorate bringing their baseball bats to the polling booths.

Since leaders are no longer equated with being superior, followers should not be categorised as being subordinate.

What does it profit a person if they gain the whole world but lose their entire soul?

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